I was recently asked to speak at the East Brandywine Volunteer Fire Company (Chester County, PA) 2015 Officer Installment ceremony. As Fire Chief John Edwards explained when he first contacted me, what began several years ago as an informal gathering to recognize newly appointed fire officers has evolved into an evening where the organization, with local municipal and county officials, family, and community leaders in attendance, takes some time to reflect on the previous year's accomplishments, celebrate the dedication of the membership, formally recognize newly appointed officers, and to enjoy some fire service fellowship as well.
The East Brandywine Fire Company is truly a minority organization in this age of declining volunteerism. They have become a model of success in Chester County, PA, boasting a consistently amazing turnout for weekly training and for their fire and medical responses. In my opinion, this is due to strong and compassionate leadership and the ever increasing capabilities of the firefighters and EMS providers -- they take tremendous pride in what they do, they are good at it, and as our friend Instructor John Dixon likes to say, they do not apologize for their passion for the job. So, having had the pleasure of instructing many of their members over the years and the good fortune of working along side of some of them at past fires as well, I was excited to hear from Chief Edwards and graciously accepted the invitation.
Interestingly, the circumstances caused me to reflect upon my own career as both a volunteer and career firefighter and officer. I pondered what it really meant to me to be a part of the fire service; and more importantly, what it means to me to be a public servant. I was thrilled to hear about the steps this organization had taken to promote its own human capital -- that philosophy that our most important assets are our people, not our things. Chief Edwards was also kind enough to tell me that a previous blog post I published in the Fire Engineering Community on renewing the fire service tradition had quite an effect on many of his members, So I decided to center my talk on the these topics. Here's what I had to say:
Thank you, Chief. It’s truly my honor to be here as you recognize your newly appointed officers and reflect on another successful year, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to your membership for a few minutes on what I've learned about what it means to be a firefighter.
In my fire service career, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the highest of highs and extremely fortunate, as some of you know, that my training did not let me down when I really needed it. More importantly though, I’ve come to understand what it truly means to be a firefighter and the awesome responsibility we bear.
The mission you’ve chosen to accept is a difficult one, to be sure. Having been at this for nearly three decades now, I can tell you this - there are some realities that you must keep in mind if you are to be successful.
First and foremost, you must realize that by taking on this role, you are going to be held to a higher standard. Whether or not you think that’s fair is irrelevant. We are here to serve the community above all else.
Advocating for the fire service and upholding the confidence and trust your public officials, your membership, and your community has placed in you is more important now than it ever has been.
I happen to believe that a fire department’s greatest asset is its people, not the things it has, and that we’re better collectively united in mission than we are as individuals with personal agendas. So I’m excited to be here tonight to pass along a few of the things I’ve learned (some, the hard way), with the hope that you enjoy the same successes I have.
-Let’s start with respect: To be blunt, it’s hard to earn and easily burned. And in the fire service, once you’ve lost it, you may never get it back. So no matter how far you rise in the ranks, always remember where you came from.
I like to put it like this: Everyone sets an example; it takes hard work, dedication, and a healthy dose of humility to set the right one.
-Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, but ask questions and don’t make the same mistake twice. Our lives depend on it.
-In this business, our actions are what’s important, not our words, so lead by example no matter your rank. The color of your helmet; the number of bugles on your collar, they do not make you a leader. So do not ask anything of your brothers and sisters that you are not willing to do yourself, and demonstrate your leadership through your actions.
-Listen. Good leaders, both formal and informal, listen and observe. You’d be surprised at what you will learn by stepping back and watching from the balcony every once in a while.
-Be a voice of reason. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in gossip – rise above it, seek to understand, and communicate.
-Be honest with each other, and stand united with your administration as you work to better the organization and the community.
-Be a champion: What does this mean? Work hard to set the right example for firefighter health and wellness, training, and safety. Many of you that know me know how passionate I am about firefighter health and wellness. It's 100% true that you need to train continuously, and train like you fight. This is absolutely what is going to get you out of trouble if it does find you. But we all know what's killing most firefighters: our own poor health. So get a physical, exercise, and be cognizant of your mental health and the health of those around you. If you do it, someone else will. When one does it, two will, When two do it, two more will. You can truly make an impact in the effort to reduce line of duty deaths by being a champion of health and wellness.
-One thing that will never change: The quicker the fire goes out, the quicker our problems go away, both for us and the victims. So get off the couch, and train, train, train. If you are always ready, you won't have to get ready.
-Take care to preserve the traditions of the fire service, but learn about and encourage the acceptance of new and proven methods for what we do and how we do it. Encourage everyone to be intelligently aggressive instead of stubborn or set in their ways.
-Act in an ethical manner at all times. You provide a vital service to the community, but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to anything but the humble satisfaction of a job well done. So, whether on the fireground, in the station, or in the community, remember you are the face of the fire service – your fire service and mine, and your words and actions impact all of us. Simply put, do the right thing, and do it even when you think no one is looking, because rest assured, in this age of social media, someone always is.
-And Perhaps most importantly: Take time for your family. I know of no fire department that ever closed its doors because one person took some time for themselves. Don’t assume that the wheels will fall off if you are not here all the time! Your family is the most important thing in this world – they support you 100% in what you do. Don’t get so caught up in the business of running the firehouse that you lose that love and support.
I'll leave you with this: I believe the fire service is the greatest job in the world, whether you are paid to do it or not. In fact, when someone asks me where I work, I always tell them I work in the fire service, so I’ve never really worked a day in my career.
But remember this: The fire service doesn’t owe you anything – it’s a privilege to be a part of it, and your words and actions should reflect this fact. If you live by this creed, I have no doubt that you will continue to be successful and that you will inspire those around you to do the right thing as well.
I congratulate all of you for your hard work and dedication. Without it…without you, no fire department can survive.
Be safe, and I’ll see you at the job!
Now, I'm sure that if you are reading this, you are probably as passionate about the fire service as I am. I left the ceremony feeling inspired about what we do. I could talk for hours about what it all means to me, and I hope that you have your own personal take on the subject as well -- maybe it includes some of what I had to say, maybe not. Either way, as current and future leaders of the fire service, we have an obligation to guide and inform the next generation of firefighters -- to set the right example. So tell me, what does it mean to you to be a firefighter? What are you doing to pay it forward? I'd love to hear what you have to say.
Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.